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The Underperformance of White Working-Class Students (6)

The connotations of saying “white working-class students” when feeling troubled about their performance in schools relative to ethnic minorities – that is, of using the phrase “white working class” in such contexts – needs a bit of unpacking. I have clearly been sceptical of its deployment and implications here. Devoting some serious attention to a little matter like a phrase does not mean that I am now going to turn into a finger-wagging policeman for linguistic political correctness. This final posting is about noting how little matters like phrases feed into discussions of great and justified concerns -- just noting, and not in a spirit of shrill disapproval.

The spirit in which the phrase is deployed in this context is largely one of liberal integrity and conscientiousness, and from quite different ideological positions. In government and other policy reports, it is simply accepted – with a few hedges – as meaningful with the best intentions. That is also largely the case in news media. When equality and diversity proponent of Pakistani-origin, Karamat Iqbal (TES, 29 April 2010) argues that white working-class students need the minority treatment; conservative David Willets (Independent, 3 January 2013) calls for universities to treat white working-class boys like an ethnic minority; liberal lefty Paul Mason (Guardian, 4 April 2016) observes that such underperformance is because working-class culture has been destroyed; and so on -- sentiments of unquestionable ethical intent are expressed. They have all simply accepted a phrase which is out there with a precedent purchase which their readers recognise and immediately accept.  

When it comes to more sustained investigations (academic or popular books), the phrase troubles but continues to exercise a currency which is already meaningful. But in such discussions the precedent currency and meaningfulness has to be sharpened into a rigorous definition for the purposes of investigation, and that’s where more or less disquiet is found. So, in relation to discussing the performance of “white working-class students” in Britain, contributors (David Gillborn, Diane Reay) to Kjartan Páll Sveinsson ed. Who Cares about the White Working-Class? (Runnymede Trust 2009), argue strongly against the racialization of the issue. And yet, valuable evidence-based research on the issue appears by honing the phrase’s definition while exploiting its existing appeal, in, for instance, Gillian Evans’ Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain (Palgrave 2006), and Garth Stahl’s Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration (Routledge 2015). Beyond the specific issue, the same patterns of rejection and acceptance are found with regard to the “white working class”. If the author explores how the British working class appears in ideologically-driven cultural representation, then “white” seems irrelevant – even mendacious – as a qualifier. So Owen Jones prefers the complex usages of “chavs” instead, considering that “The white working class has become another marginalized ethnic minority, and this meant that all their concerns were understood solely through the prism of race. […] The rise of the idea of a ‘white working class’ fuelled a new liberal bigotry” (Chavs, Verso 2011, pp.8-9). However, laboriously defined defences of the phrase lead into illuminating ethnographic and sociological accounts by those who are accustomed to analysing through a prism of ethnicity: such as, recently, in Harris Beider’s White Working Class Voices (Policy Press 2015), and no doubt in Justin Gest’s forthcoming The New Minority (OUP 2016) – one can already find his negotiations with the phrase in a journal paper, “The white working-class minority” (2016) .  

So, no blithe dismissal of the phrase is possible, but it certainly surfaces repeatedly and suggestively enough to -- and accrues significances which -- render it worthy of contemplation in itself. The following points don’t engage with the definitional negotiations in the studies referred above, but bear on them at a tangent. These are offered with a semantic thrust which is nevertheless of obviously larger import than linguistic. I rather feel that each is worth investigating in depth; I make them here in a very cursory manner.

1. The immediate appeal of the phrase “white working class” is always precedent to current definitions and dismissals or defences, which (usually tacitly) draw upon and are informed by that precedent appeal. The precedent appeal rests in a paradox: the phrase presents a sort of ideological oxymoron which cobbles together contrary affective dimensions of the terms in question (affective more than connotative – more precisely, with a history of connotations that have conferred these terms with complex affects, a complex of memories, commitments, convictions, emotions). “Working class” is social constructionist in appeal to the core, and especially associated with socialist histories. Its principal thrust is in foregrounding relations between social strata as expressions of capitalist economic and, cotermionously, socio-political structures. And, the working class is conceived thus because those relations and structures can be changed at the behest of the working class (by revolutionary or incremental action). At any rate, it is that conviction in the possibility of change which gives the working class its ownership of the term; and the many-layered historical experience of seeking change is imbued in what the term means now – what images, feelings, thoughts it arouses for those who say “working class”. On the other hand, though now a sort of academic consensus has emerged that “white” (and other such racial and ethnic terms) is socially constructed, that has only been as an (ongoing) struggle against its essentialist grounding. The history of the term is grounded in essentialist subscriptions to racial hierarchies amidst imperialist systems or ethno-nationalist claims. These have to constantly be opposed – because they are awfully sticky (both imperialist and nationalist sentiment and power are going strong) – by constantly reiterating the term’s social constructionist character. This history brings quite distinct affective dimensions to the term “white”, of either essentialist pride or anti-essentialist resistance. Essentialism (owned or resisted) is in its core. So, “white working-class” evokes the social-constructionist certainty of “working class” and the (possibly contested) essentialist claim of “whiteness” in the same breath – an ideological oxymoron. Oxymora tend to be memorable, useful for advertising jingles, as catchphrases, etc., and seem to mean more than the contradictory sum of their parts.  

2.  Ideological oxymora are brilliant tools for co-opting all politically opposed or indifferent sides, or evading all sides. Someone who speaks on behalf of the white working class can go off to the socialists and say, “it’s really about the white working class”; and equally go off to the fascists and say, “it’s really about the white working-class”; and equally go off to the immoderately moderate centre and say, “it’s about this peculiar new thing, the white working class”; and then pause before the black activist and say, “we are speaking the same language really, you are black and we are white, where’s the difference?”  All histories and experiences are sort of prodded into a side (but there will always be contrarians). In that sense, an ideological oxymoron like “white working class” performs liberal compromise or neoliberal pacification by its very enunciation, before being defined to activist or academic ends.   

3. Examining and talking about the “white working class” in the UK and the USA as if it were the same formation, with the same kind of connotations, is in vogue (beleaguered in the same way, or vilified and courted as Donald Trump supporters and Nigel Farage supporters in the same way). But the phrase really has to have made its advent in Britain quite recently – gaining currency mainly since the 1990s, I suspect. Some history of racial differentiation within the ranks of labour is needed to crystallise the “white working class” as such. That would emerge from, as a plausible supposition, settler colonies – USA, South Africa, Australia, and so on; would probably have featured in the British Foreign Office (with Commonwealth Office added later) records in the early 20th century by way of distinguishing native labour, indentured labour, (ex-)slave labour and … well ... white working class (which could slip into “white trash”). That’s somewhat facile guessing (but easily checked); the record of academic research we already know. Sometime in the 1970s the term came into vogue in American academic circles in much the way it has been in vogue in Britain since the 1990s. The appearance of Joseph Ryan’s ed. White Ethnics: Their Life in Working Class America (Prentice Hall 1973) and Stanley Feldstein and Lawrence Costello’s ed. The Ordeal of Assimilation: A Documentary History of the White Working Class 1830-1970 (Knopf 1974) marked the arrival of the phrase as not simply one that refers to a racist fold. Its appearance as such in the USA made sense: for both editors, the whiteness of the white working class emerged through a national history which was, all the way, a history of immigrations and ethnic competitions and conflicts. Such however was not the history of labour and the working class in Britain. Here the working class has a more cohesive and politically contained history as such, as, simply, working class. It was "English working class" for E.P. Thompson (1963), of course, who saw “class” as something “that happens in human relationships” (in the 1963 Preface) and yet didn't need to note that the English working class should be recognised now as “white”. He knew all about prejudice based on ethnicity though (but not colour-coded), and Irish was one and the French yet another and the Jewish of course. Obviously, those concerned with the constituencies of labour in Britain in the 19th century were alive to difference and prejudice: Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth certainly noted Irish, Jews, and, without blinking much, Lascars, Negroes, Chinese, and felt no need to say “white workers” – because it was the default position. That makes all the difference in historicizing and therefore understanding the present resonances of the white working class in the USA and in the UK – they do not resonate in the same way, they do not come with the same baggage. Obviously, people in Britain won’t be talking about the “white working class” in Britain till immigrants “of colour” turned up to compete for workers’ jobs, and in some significant number, and that’s mainly post-1945.

4. So, the American (or other settler colonial) phrase has been imported into Britain and become current now, become a structure of rationalizing in policy, media and academic circles. I can make this final point by talking about the last circle with a confidence that speaks to the point itself: by claiming my academic subjectivity (or should it be subjection?). As an aspiring lecturer just after 1989 I read that “class” is dead (at least, Jan Pakulski announced The Death of Class, 1996), or suffering from a terminal illness (variously Zygmunt Bauman, Anthony Giddens, Alain Touraine and others had already suggested it), and social movements and the politics of identity have dispensed with its utility. In particular, the “working class” (within a nation-state or as a general formation) rouses the spectre of communism, and that isn’t nice. “Working class” could thereafter be talked of productively by some subterfuge, such as referring to a specific limitation – the miner class, the automobile worker class, deprived class, disadvantaged class, manual worker class, etc. – or some other marker – blue-collar, low-income, inner-city, etc. (and, why not “chav”). In any case, as Thatcherites and then Blairites kept reminding me, the world has changed and manufacture and factories belong to yesterday and service industries and consultancy and retail spaces are today. And there’s globalization, so if there's a working class it’s probably somewhere outside my ken in some developing zone. More importantly, I noticed that to get on in academia it is useful to have an identity and be concerned about identities, some identity that is beleaguered and that I happen to already be – to be able to say, “I am authentically so” by way of pitching an argument, or, at the least, “I respect that you are authentically so”. A structure of power founded on identity politics is emerging (has already emerged really), and it encourages a pathway for appointments, opportunities to publish, scholarly notice, academic patronage, and so on. The only identity that wasn’t now really doing the trick was the older claim to authentic beleagueredness: being working class. Gradually, it turned out that I don’t necessarily have to be is possession of a particular beleaguered identity, and could own up to any sort of identity – so long as I don’t simply say “class” and stop there, but also wrap myself with the soul-capturing mystique of an “ethnicity”, any “ethnicity”. Everyone has an ethnicity that could be interesting. Put all that together, and one can see why sooner or later “white working class” would become not just de rigueur but inevitable.